Electronic Eye April 2012
QUESTIA and QUESTIA SCHOOL
Many of the school districts around mine are starting to explore the idea of allowing students to BYOD – Bring Your Own Device – into the classroom. The thinking is that many students have a Smartphone or a tablet device in their backpacks already, so why not leverage that technology for student learning and increase the ratio of tech devices to students in the classroom?
For some schools and some teachers, this will involve a major shift in thinking about how students and teachers work together in the classroom. There is some fear among educators who may have only seen a Smartphone as a classroom distraction that needs to be addressed. But these additional devices in a classroom do have the potential to create good opportunities for more effective and engaged learning.
Part of the challenge for educators who are considering how to use student devices in the classroom is envisioning how to use them to provide meaningful learning experiences for students. Most students who imagine bringing in a device to their classroom assume that they could at least search the free Web for information with their favorite search engine. Most librarians will agree that this can quickly become a time-wasting trot through a lot of brief and poor information sources.
As my school district starts to consider a BYOD pilot, I’m considering how I carry out my central mission, which is to provide students with online resources that are rich in content and contain more credible information, as well as opportunities to learn how to manage deeper databases that require more intelligent searching. I’m taking a close look at larger database that have an interface tailored for the young adult researcher and also has a mobile app available for iPads or Android tablets. I keep on wondering if ProQuest will create an app very soon, although their new interface looks and works well on an iPad.
The Questia Online Library is an interesting product that is currently geared to the college-aged researcher, but is also for sale for secondary level researchers. A frustration is that they don’t have institutional pricing. Their agreements with publishers require that only individual users can pay for access, but they will work with schools to provide bulk sale discounts.
Questia provides unlimited access to digital content from book publishers such as Wiley and Sons. There are over 6,000 topic ideas that provide students with an idea as well as the resources to begin their research. The site boasts over 75,000 full-text books, 4 million articles from magazines and newspapers, as well as academic journals.
The Web-based interface has five tabs: Home, Search, Browse, Read, and Work. The home screen offers users the chance to drill down within categories or within the over 6,500 topics suggested by librarians. The home screen also shows users the last two publications that they were reading and what they’ve chosen to collect on their bookshelf. The home screen also highlights the projects that the user is working on.
The search tab links users to a robust advanced search function. Simple keyword searching is presented at the top of the screen and quotation marks can be used to combine search terms together into phases. In addition to keyword searching, users are given fields to fill in. Check boxes allow users to search within particular types of material such as books, journals, magazines, newspapers, the encyclopedia (which happens to be the Columbia encyclopedia) or within the research topics. Users can also choose to look though the entire database or can segment the collection by broad topics. Students can also limit results by publication year as well as the Lexile reading level, however, I’m not sure how many items have been given Lexiles.
The Read tab allows users to mark up the text as they read. If it is a book, the page where their term is located is indicated on the navigation bar on the right, but the book loads up at the title page, allowing the user to identify the source that they are using. Users can add the book to their bookshelf for later access or they can bookmark just a page of the book. Text can also be highlighted with a multihued electronic highlighter. Private notes can also be added to pages and appear outside of the margins of the page. The system also allows researchers to quote from and cite text to copy into word processing software along with the proper citation.
The final Tab is the Work tab which shows all of the resources that a user accessed, bookmarked, highlighted, added notes to or cited. This is a great digital trail of where a researcher has been but does not give users any other kind of workspace to create notes or describe ideas.
Social networking has functions in Questia. Not only are users allowed to rate a source on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, they can also write reviews of the sources they are using. The user name will be included with the review. Users can also link to the resource from the most common social networking and bookmarking sites including Facebook and Blogger.
Questia does have a free app for iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch devices. The app for iPad looks very different from the Web-based version, and the two workspaces do not seem to sync up together, making it important that users either choose to use Questia on a device or a computer. The search function on the iPad only allows for more basic keyword, title, or author searching. Users can still bookmark pages, they can add a book to their bookshelf, but they cannot quote or cite sections for inclusion in a separate document or highlight. The search within a book function shows the page numbers where the words happen to be but users have to click on the page number to reveal the quote. Users can still drill down through different categories but I could not find on the app where users could access the collection of topic suggestions.
Reading a Questia ebook is a comfortable experience, although it does take a bit to learn the right flicking gesture to move from one page to another. A dialogue box that trains the user appears the first time a book is opened. The pages switch very quickly. There is not a lag when a page loads. The page loads in the full screen when the device is in portrait orientation.
I assume that the app will continue to be refined and improved upon, but it does provide a good reading experience and most of the functionality of the Web-based version.
And then there’s a new product called Questia School. Questia School uses the same Web-based interface as Questia Online Library, but contains a smaller content collection which is focused on high school curricular areas. This school product actually has three parts to it. “Questia High School” is the central resource for high school users, but then there is also an add-on product that targets students in an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate (IB) program. This add-on product is called “Questia Achieve.” The third product is called “Questia Professional Development.”
A major component of Questia High School happens to be the “Reading Lists.” Students can access materials by selecting their grade level and area of study. This brings up a list of categories that are traditionally covered in the standards for those grade levels. Students can then drill down a more specific topic and receive reading suggestions for that specific topic. For instance, looking at World Literature for Grade 12 allows users to see what is available for Greek Tragedy as well as T.S. Eliot.
Something else that helps teachers to use Questia School with their students are the lesson plans that have been written. Each lesson plan suggests resources, identifies the Lexile reading level for these resources, and also aligns them with national and state standards. I could see a teacher using these to help create better expectations of the learning outcomes of students. These lesson plans could help a teacher creating a BYOD experience to help students be accountable what they learn when in class.
I could see Questia School solving some problems for student researchers at the high school level, as well as providing teachers with a way of helping students access quality book content. I especially appreciate how well the collection has targeted the curriculum. I think that this will help both students and teachers recognize that an online resource such as Questia School should not be considered a supplemental resource, but a core one. I like the fact that Questia has positioned itself to help teachers teach the curriculum and I appreciate the fact that the interface has been designed to appeal to my young adult researchers.
After working for eight years as head librarian at Marymount School of New York in New York City, Kathleen Meulen is now a librarian for the Bainbridge Island School District in Washington state. Please e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.